By Lou Korac
He has the ability to take a game over at any given moment.
That’s what the Blues come to expect out of Vladimir Tarasenko and know of this capability.
Tarasenko had jut two goals through six games in a first-round series win against the Winnipeg Jets but hadn’t had that sort of breakout game yet.
He scored twice, including a highlight reel goal in the third period that turned out to be the difference in a 3-2 win against the Dallas Stars in Game 1 of the Western Conference Second Round at Enterprise Center.
The Blues, who lead the best-of-7 series 1-0 with Game 2 slated for Saturday at 2 p.m., got the boost they needed from Tarasenko, who also scored a power-play goal in the second period to end Dallas’ perfect run on the penalty kill, and Robby Fabbri scored his first goal in 25 games while Jordan Binnington made 27 saves, including 16 in the third period to preserve the win.
But this was all Tarasenko, who continues to torment the Stars. He has 23 points (16 goals, seven assists) in 27 regular-season games against them, and now has nine points (five goals, four assists) in eight playoff games against the Stars.
“Just God-given talent,” Blues interim coach Craig Berube said of Tarasenko. “He’s a powerful guy that can skate. When he drives wide like that, he’s really tough to handle for a lot of people. We’ve talked about it. It’s been ongoing for quite some time throughout the year and I think he’s gotten better better at it.”
Tarasenko took a puck at the center ice red line, burst up the sideline, powered his way past talented Stars rookie defenseman Miro Heiskanen before depositing a shot top shelf over St. Louisan Ben Bishop at 3:51 of the third period and gave the Blues a 3-1 lead.
“I obviously scored,” said Tarasenko, who had a similar move in the second period on former Blue Roman Polak but didn’t score. “Cut the middle, it’s nice but guys know you do this a lot, so you just try to take the puck wide, take it to the net, use the body and good thing it works at the right time.”
It provided the Blues with ample breathing room, because the Stars, who had just 12 shots on goal through two periods, peppered Binnington with 17 third-period shots, pulled within one when Jamie Benn, a Blues nemesis, scored a power-play goal with 2:17 remaining and nearly tied it at the buzzer when Benn fanned on an airborne puck.
But this is what Tarasenko is capable of doing at the right moments for the Blues.
“It’s amazing how he can make something out of nothing,” Blues center Ryan O’Reilly said of Tarasenko. “That play, I’m in the corner and I just try to throw the puck up. He makes a play, he gets it, then drops wide and scores an unbelievable goal. That’s just him. He’s just one of the few people in the game that can turn it on and make those amazing plays.”
The Stars came out with a bit of purpose early and hemmed the Blues in their zone, had a 5-0 shot lead before Fabbri scored his first goal since Nov. 23 on the Blues’ first shot.
He took Ivan Barbashev’s stretch pass before whipping a wrist shot through Bishop’s five-hole for a 1-0 lead 5:57 into the game.
“Yeah, puck’s rolling,” said Bishop, who made 17 saves in the game. “I don’t think he’s trying to go five-hole. Kind of fans on it and it goes five-hole. Sometimes when they’re trying to shoot somewhere else and ends up fanning five-hole, that’s how it goes in. Kind of an unfortunate break, but it happens sometimes.”
Jason Spezza tied it for the Stars at 10:25 of the second when John Klingberg skated around David Perron before feeding Spezza in the left circle. Binnington got a piece of the shot but not enough.
But Tarasenko’s power-play goal gave the Blues the lead for good when he took Brayden Schenn’s quick cross-ice pass, skated into the left circle and beat Bishop five-hole at 18:03 of the second.
“We talk a lot about our power play in practices,” Tarasenko said. “I always say hard work will pay off. Good thing it works. ‘Schenner’ make a great pass, ‘O’Ry’ make a pick and they create a great scoring chance for me.”
“That was a massive one to give us some confidence,” O’Reilly said. “Our first power play we had there wasn’t great. We needed to get back to shooting the puck to generate some momentum and obviously it was a big play. Everyone was involved on it and it gave us some big confidence for sure.”
The Blues took the initiative early in the third and got the goal needed by Tarasenko to gain some breathing room.
“I thought Vladi, he took the puck wide with speed tonight,” Berube said. “He drove the net a few times, got rewarded with a goal. Good job. We talk about driving the puck wide all the time with speed and he did that tonight a few times.”
Things got a bit chippy at the 12:22 mark when Stars forward Blake Comeau made contact with Binnington when Binnington beat him to a puck in the high slot. The Blues’ goalie went down, and a penalty was being called, but Vince Dunn and Alex Pietrangelo took exception before a bit of a skirmish broke out, and offsetting penalties were awarded.
“He kind of came out a little late,” Dunn said of Binnington. “I thought I was going to get the puck. Once a goalie’s out, you have to make sure you’re out of his way. It was kind of a freak play. I didn’t want to hit him and I didn’t want to get in the way of the puck.
“I definitely think it’s an emotional game. I definitely think [Comeau] could have avoided contact there. I’m just trying to do something for my teammates.”
Binnington downplayed it.
“I don’t mind that,” said Binnington, who improved to 5-2 in the postseason and set a Blues record for most wins in a postseason by a rookie goaltender, eclipsing Jacques Caron (4-5 in 1972) and Curtis Joseph (4-1 in 1990). “It’s playoff hockey and stuff happens. It was nice to see the boys come in there and stir it up afterwards. It was a unique play that doesn’t happen too often and I think we handled it well.”
What the Blues didn’t handle all that well was the third period in general and Dallas’ push at the end, which nearly resulted in two late goals.
“I didn’t think that we made enough plays. We’ve got to be better making plays. Our puck play has got to be better. All game, I didn’t think it was great. We’ve got to be better. They’re going to be better next game, we’ve got to be better.”
“There’s no space in the playoffs, so we need to find a way to go into the hard areas to score the goals, hang out down low with the puck and don’t make the turnovers,” Tarasenko said.
But at this point, a win is a win, and the Blues held down the Stars’ top line of Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, which had 18 points in their first-round series win over Nashville, to a goal and an assist, which came on the Benn goal.
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports